Archive for August, 2008


Guess who’s coming back to Top Shelf 2.0 soon…

more shameless self-promotion!

Oh by the way, my interview with PWCW‘s Laura Hudson is up on her blog Myriad Issues. We talk about a few issues related to digital comics distribution, including my attempt to construct a theoretical division of media experiences into “ephemeral” and “permanent” — something that isn’t entirely fleshed out yet, but I’m getting closer to figuring out what I’m trying to say.

This is the section that seems to be hooking people the most:

If you treat your comics as newspapers from a fictional universe, there’s no reason to read them twice.

Choose your destiny!

Today’s Top Shelf 2.0 story is new material from Kagan McLeod — a sort of “bonus chapter” never before seen in the original self-published Infinite Kung Fu comic book. Kagan has been going through and “remastering” the whole series, often re-inking whole pages, in preparation for the release of the complete IKF graphic novel from Top Shelf next year. Today’s is an example of an all-new scene that he’s added to improve the flow of the story and lay the groundwork for the whole plot. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll continue to serialize the book with regular web updates, just as we did with Matt Kindt’s Eisner-nominated Super Spy.

what the world needs now is Dark Superman

I totally called this:

Like the recent Batman sequel — which has become the highest-grossing film of the year thus far — Mr. Robinov wants his next pack of superhero movies to be bathed in the same brooding tone as “The Dark Knight.” Creatively, he sees exploring the evil side to characters as the key to unlocking some of Warner Bros.’ DC properties. “We’re going to try to go dark to the extent that the characters allow it,” he says. That goes for the company’s Superman franchise as well.

If Dark Knight has already convinced the suits that “darker=better,” Watchmen is going to seal the deal.

Oh goody. Now, far be it from me to begrudge anyone his or her own personal “aha” moment:

Snyder remembers screening some Watchmen footage for an unnamed studio executive. Afterward, Snyder says, the exec turned to him and said, ”This makes Superman look stupid.”

To get grumpy about the mass audience discovering something that hip comic fans discovered years ago would just be elitism, and as tempting as it is, I recognize that it’s not fair.

What I’m honestly not looking forward to is the deluge of misguided imitations of the Dark Knight/Watchmen vibe, as the broader entertainment industry tries to digest this pill that the comics industry first swallowed 20 years ago and is finally, gradually, starting to metabolize. Sure, some of the influence will be good — we’re not likely to see Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze again — but as the AV Club put it, “the immediate impact of Watchmen was a wave of violent, ugly, and stupid superhero comics.” We’re about to see that unfold all over again, writ large.

Hopefully it won’t last too long and the next big Hollywood trend will arrive soon. Cowboy musicals or something.

we nerds, we love our lists

Alan David Doane has a list of 100 must-read graphic novels that’s sparked a bit of discussion, including some play-along-at-home “bold the ones you’ve read” memery. Quite a few Top Shelf titles included, he noted with pride.

Careful, guys. If this thing catches on Dick’s going to have to do another meta-list.

“All bad art is the result of good intentions”

Wilde (1997)
dir: Brian Gilbert

Stephen Fry is a treasure and it’s a privilege to see him perform in any circumstances.

To see him portray Oscar Wilde, an even greater genius and one of Fry’s personal heroes, should have been a delightful experience. Unfortunately, the result is disappointingly lifeless and generic.

I think the primary fact crippling this production was the filmmakers’ goal of presenting Wilde as 1) an ordinary man to whom we can all relate and 2) a tragic hero of gay liberation. Undoubtedly both of these elements are present in Wilde’s story, but the emphasis on his ordinariness in this production ultimately left him uninteresting, a passive character in his own life story, often at a loss as to what to say or do. Oscar Wilde was many things, but he was never uninteresting and never at a loss for words. The humanizing of a genius only works if we are shown the genius, at least a little bit — which this team has either forgotten, or deliberately declined, to do. Wilde’s conversational wit, his outlandish manner and costume, his ideas about interior decorating, his unprecedented celebrity, and most of all his writing, are all mentioned but barely shown. Fry has said “it’s very important that we don’t see him as this sort of peacock, this kind of posing, prancing queen,” and screenwriter Julian Mitchell mentions not wanting to pack the script with Wilde’s “greatest hits,” which is fair enough, but we’re left with no sense of scale, and no reason to care about him at all.

It’s typical that the film poster, featuring Fry as Wilde in this outrageous suit striding through the grumpy barristers, has been digitally altered to make the suit a supersaturated pink. With several openly gay folks involved in the production, one clear goal of the film was to reach contemporary gay audiences and connect Wilde to “the contemporary gay experience.” But on the other hand, he doesn’t wear anything so shocking in the film itself — the suit in that scene is actually a modest pale tan, and the scene isn’t particularly outrageous at all. The filmmakers are stuck with either cliché or ordinariness, both of which seem rather treasonous in a film about Wilde, of all people.

Fry is a captivating critic and speaker with a deep understanding of Wilde (see podcast #3) — indeed, watching him in the making-of featurettes and interviews is more fun than the film itself. That he as Wilde is so often forced to keep quiet and stare thoughtfully off-camera is a great waste. Young Jude Law is appropriately angelic in appearance and infantile in behavior.

The score, like the film itself, is too easy — standard Hollywood melodrama.

Oscar Wilde was certainly a man who loved men, but if that’s all he had been, we would not remember him today. That’s essentially all we’re shown here, and the result is forgettable. It’s not the film Oscar would have made.

Traduttore, traditore

Dan Walsh, who runs the Garfield Minus Garfield site, has chipped in to my previous entry to correct some misconceptions about the new GMG book. On August 2 he created a FAQ for the site, including:

Q. How did you come up with the idea for Garfield Minus Garfield?
A. I wasn’t the first person to come up with the premise for Garfield Minus Garfield but I think it’s fair to say I did champion and popularise it. The idea had been floating around on message boards for a couple years before I started posting them.
As far I know, I was the first person to create a site devoted to it.
I’ve said this to every interviewer who has asked me but it’s rarely published. And it’s pretty much impossible to find who did it first, believe me, I’ve tried.

“I didn’t invent this” doesn’t make for good copy, it’s true. For a publicist trying to sell a new Garfield book to suburban housewives, it makes sense to play down that angle. But exploring the issue does lead to a fascinating debate about the future of content creation and the growing pains as traditional business practices clash with new ways of interacting with art. Some of which I tried to address in the original post.

In any case, I did unfairly tar Walsh with the same brush that I attacked the endlessly-irritating Cheezburger guys with, which I gladly retract.

On some level I really get where he’s coming from. I’ve daydreamed from time to time about writing a serious analysis of /b/ and why it’s important in far more ways than anyone’s articulated so far. It’s interesting — in the process of recommending John Darnielle’s brilliant book Master of Reality to a friend, I said:

Given the nature of metal’s core demographic appeal (young, working class, outsider, etc), it’s frustratingly rare to find articulate writers who genuinely “get” the genre. I identify closely with Darnielle; I think we both discovered that appeal despite being outside that demographic, which leads to a delicate balancing act between wanting to serve as ambassadors to the outside world, encouraging the sophistication of a relatively infantile artform, and trying not to patronize the existing fanbase. As somebody who has repeatedly found myself fascinated with various forms of “low” culture, I think about this kind of thing a lot.

There’s always that dance when you discover something cool and edgy and feel like it deserves more exposure. There’s a temptation to serve as curator or even translator, sanding off the rough edges or repackaging it in a way that helps new people understand it — without taking credit for something that isn’t yours or destroying what made it great in the first place. Like any task, it can be done well or poorly. It’s something that every publisher does, but it seems especially central to Top Shelf’s mission: treading that boundary between artsy and populist.

For instance, though I had no role whatsoever in its creation, I’m pleased to say that Cave Adventure is the most “mainstream” thing I’ve ever seen Michael Deforge do, and for that reason my favorite. I’m happy that he’s able to use his insane imagination to tell a coherent and hilarious story, and I think it actually fits in really well with Top Shelf’s aesthetic. I’m looking forward to more involved editorial relationships in the future (when I find the time — ha); when it’s done right, everybody wins.

on lime green jello

I guess I should offer some kind of response to Robert Kirkman’s green-screen video manifesto beyond my twitticism: is the new

Which I’m still kinda proud of.

All kidding aside, I do agree with Kirkman’s thesis (maybe not with all the side rants and theories). I applaud him for saying it, as I applauded Brian K Vaughan for saying it in this January interview:

And to be crass, the comic [Y: The Last Man] also bought my house. That’s just the comic, not optioning the movie rights or anything. And I know that makes me sound like a douche, but I only brag in the hopes of inspiring some of my colleagues who think that the only way to provide for their families is through corporate-owned superheroes.

I love those characters, and would never begrudge anyone who wants to write or draw them, but I’m always shocked by my fellow creators who are reluctant to make their own characters solely because they don’t think that creator-owned books can be profitable.

I was paid very handsomely to write Top 10 books like Buffy or Ultimate X-Men, more money than anyone deserves to be paid for work that fun, but it was definitely a pay-cut compared to what my artistic collaborators and I make over the long run for relatively lower selling work that we own, which will be taking care of us in various forms for years to come.

Plus, what’s more fun than making something new?

Certainly, there’s no guarantee of success with starting a creator-owned book in this marketplace, but I’d venture to guess that established creators like Robert Kirkman and Brian Bendis and Mark Millar are probably making more from the books that they co-own with their artists than they are for the excellent work-for-hire stuff they do for companies like Marvel and DC.

So if you’re even a somewhat successful mainstream writer or artist who’s looking to “sell out,” it’s time to create something of your own! I don’t think Y was an anomaly. You can do this, too.

It’s an important message to spread, with a host of caveats. We don’t need another early-90s Dave Sim, hyping the limitless riches available to creators if only they would start self-publishing (with his own ostentatious self as proof), only for the bottom to drop out on everyone (especially those who weren’t as lucky or as business-oriented as Sim). There are apparently still quite a few people from that period who feel taken advantage of. Any kind of magic-bullet “it worked for me; it’ll work for you too” needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

But Kirkman isn’t proposing anything as insane as expecting a bunch of artists to also be savvy businesspeople. I think most people realize that making a comic and running a publishing company are demanding jobs that require different skill sets. In fact, my limited understanding of the restructuring of Image is that doing a book with Image is going to become less like self-publishing than it used to be during the hands-off “Image Central” Valentino years.

No, Kirkman seems to have two goals here:

  • Using his financial success from creator-owned comics to encourage work-for-hire creators to do more creator-owned work, and
  • Using his high profile among superhero fans to encourage them to accept and purchase creator-owned comics.

Maybe I spent too much time on Warren Ellis’s Engine messageboard during my formative years, but I’m not sure point #1 is news to any creator. Are there that many starry-eyed writers and artists who see Batman as the pinnacle of their dream career? …Okay, don’t answer that. But how many of them would really produce something worthwhile if they dedicated themselves to a creator-owned comic? Setting aesthetic considerations aside, how many of them would be able to create a book that sells at the level of Kirkman’s Walking Dead or Vaughan’s Y?

It just seems like this message is already out there. Mark Millar’s regular announcements of his enormous financial success are hard to miss. Ellis has made a career out of cursing the backwards thinking of the American comics market and (rightly) insisting on the moral superiority of creator-owned work. It kind of seems like at this point, people have made their decisions. Most creators who are interested in this sort of thing are already in the trenches trying to make it work; I suspect their answer to Kirkman’s question of “why aren’t there more Hellboys and Walking Deads?” is “I would very much like for my book to be a Hellboy or Walking Dead, thanks for asking.”

Unless Kirkman and Image are actually changing the game. If they’ve got a new deal that would somehow allow Jamie McKelvie or Matt Fraction (or Kagan McLeod) to drop everything and do their own comics full-time, then by all means let’s have it. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

Which brings us to point 2: Kirkman’s efforts to develop a larger audience for creator-owned work. While there will always be some fans who need something like this to awaken them to the economic realities of publishing (I certainly did), this strikes me as something of a futile effort. Remember the shitstorm that erupted when Paul O’Brien announced he was “bored” with comics? It turned out that Paul, like many people, doesn’t want anything more from his comics than to see a good X-Men story. Or the infamous angry reaction from Newsarama readers when Jerry Siegel’s family attempted to squeeze some justice out of comics’ original sin (aka beads for Manhattan). Is it possible to turn every X-Men fan into a Casanova fan? Is it possible to make fanboys care about the creative independence or long-term financial stability of comic creators? Will they take this message more seriously when it comes from the author of Marvel Zombies rather than a pretentious hipster or a condescending Englishman?

Maybe so. I didn’t think of comics as a business until I started reading Paul O’Brien’s reviews, actually, when I was around 18.

Can I put myself back in the fanboy mindset? I started reading comics in the early 90s, just after the Image launch; I didn’t like any of their books. I loved Joe Madureira on Uncanny X-Men but when he quit to launch Battle Chasers it didn’t occur to me to follow him. Fabian Nicieza was my favorite comics writer, but when he left Marvel in 1995 I barely noticed. I just now found out that he went to Acclaim Comics to be their editor-in-chief. Things are surely different now in terms of news getting around (if it wasn’t mentioned in a Marvel house ad or Wizard, I didn’t know about it), but… how different?

If, hypothetically, two of my favorite creators back then had followed Kirkman’s advice and launched a new creator-owned project that they could really put their heart and soul into, would I have followed them there? Well, they did, and it was called Steampunk by Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo. My brother brought a bunch of the issues home and it confused the hell out of me. I retreated back to my safe and comprehensible Marvel Universe.

Bad example. Steampunk was sort of legendarily incoherent. But I guess it does underscore that whatever plans Image is concocting, hopefully they involve a degree of editorial guidance?

I dunno. Maybe this is a message that just needs to get re-announced every year or so. Maybe my perspective has changed too much from being inside the industry and I can’t see the hordes of fans who need to hear exactly this message. On the flip side, maybe I’m not close enough to the Marvel and DC circles to hear the grumbling pros who have great ideas for creator-owned books but are reluctant to give it a shot. If so, here’s hoping Kirkman makes an impact.

he Will Destroy You

I am loving this Tom Neely man-as-black-metal-band shirt, available from his web site

Raymond Briggs and other things I don’t know a lot about

Caleb Mozzocco has a nice post surveying some of Raymond Briggs’ books, and describing the “aha” moment when he realized that the mind behind that trippy Snowman movie from his childhood should be ranked with the great graphic novelists.

The final book I read was When The Wind Blows, a 1982 book that blew me away. … By the time I was finished, I was downright shocked that I had never heard of it—or Briggs in terms of a graphic novelist—before. Why wasn’t this mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns, the holy trinity of transformative works that people are always citing as the tectonic shift in the comics medium?

Funnily enough, Paul Gravett’s book GRAPHIC NOVELS does precisely that — places When the Wind Blows in Gravett’s canon of 30 or so essential GNs, then links it to thematically similar works. Considering that Gravett is (in my limited understanding) basically the key figure in the modern British graphic novel scene, it’s a fascinating illustration of the differences between the British and North American comics cultures.

But I can relate to a lot of Caleb’s post. I remember there was a day, during one of the collegiate summers I spent at my parents’ house, when I literally went down to the shelf where the old beloved children’s books were kept (old editions of Narnia and Tolkien and Gary Paulsen and such), found The Snowman, flipped through it to find my suspicions confirmed, and brought it back upstairs with me to place onto my comics shelf. At this very moment it’s in my bedroom standing next to Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. (Amusingly, it also has a “Merry Christmas, Leigh; I love you” inscription from my aunt dating to 1987, complete with the signature of two-year-old Leigh.)

Since my own rediscovery and reclassification of The Snowman, I’ve seen Briggs as a graphic novelist who was never regarded in those terms because he never participated in the comics scene. He’s too popular to be a graphic novelist. By that I mean, for some reason his work is something that the general public can easily embrace without any of the qualms that keep them from embracing a “comic book,” and since he’s been selling gangbusters without being classed with comics, there’s never been any motive for him to make the connection. More cynically: he escaped the comics ghetto.

I was sorry to read in the Guardian that some abusive contracts seem to have kept him from enjoying the profits of his success, though. Here I assumed in the Real Books industry things were different.

I mentally classify Briggs with Edward Gorey and maybe a couple others — people who spent the 20th century hacking through the same jungle as the “canonical” graphic novelists, but independently rather than in affiliation with Team Comix. Interesting how, say, Jules Feiffer makes it into the canon but somebody like Shel Silverstein doesn’t quite (though both are incredibly popular).

I dunno, maybe that’s my subjective take based on historical accidents like whose rights were available for a recent Fantagraphics collection and whose weren’t. Well, not to mention that Feiffer wrote the book on early comic book culture… but I digress.

What’s so interesting about this at the moment is that as the “graphic novel”/”comic book” label has become Hot Stuff in the mainstream, whether we’ll see more attempts to reconceptualize the great cartoonists who found success outside of those labels. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home strikes me as a book that would have completely avoided the comics scene altogether if it had been published ten years ago — i.e. she would have been another Gorey or Briggs — but we claimed it as “one of ours” and her publisher was happy to position it that way. In 2006, it was the right move. Fantagraphics has been treading an interesting line with the Peanuts edition, framing it primarily as a Great American Comic Strip and Hey Remember Pigpen? but with subtle hints of connection to the contemporary Graphic Novel hotness.

I find these questions of identity endlessly fascinating. Not the tedious debate of What’s In and What’s Out — I’m easy, as far as I’m concerned it’s All In — but the way some things get accepted as Comics and others remain invisible. We encounter these things in such different contexts that sometimes it takes a crossover moment (Gravett covering Briggs, Maus winning the Pulitzer, Marvel publishing ElfQuest, my public library shelving ElfQuest next to Tintin and Asterix, Marvel publishing Frank Cho, Marvel publishing Gary Panter, Dark Horse publishing Nicholas Gurewitch, Disney Adventures publishing Bone, Scholastic publishing Bone, Pantheon publishing Posy Simmonds, Playboy publishing the author of The Giving Tree, Top Shelf publishing the creator of Earthworm Jim, Tom Spurgeon covering editorial cartoonists, etc) to force people to reevaluate their categories.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.


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